Home / Companies / SoftBank may look to pair Pepper with IPsoft’s Amelia

Bengaluru: Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Corp. is looking to partner Indian-born Chetan Dube’s IPsoft to embed its humanoid robot Pepper with the latter’s cognitive computing product Amelia—a move that could potentially be the biggest validation and business opportunity for the 17-year-old IPsoft.

Privately held IPsoft, which released its most advanced solution Amelia version 2 in October, has until now been working to transform global workforces through its intelligent technology platforms. SoftBank Robotics Corp., the robotics joint venture of SoftBank, is already retailing its 1.2m humanoid robot Pepper, and is looking to partner IPsoft.

SoftBank is looking to make Pepper a mainstream “companion robot", according to a senior IPsoft executive.

“They want to have Amelia’s brain embedded into Pepper. You know why? Do you know that the number of adult diapers sold in Japan exceed the number of baby diapers sold? That tells you something. They (SoftBank) are looking to make Pepper a companion robot and break into the market in a big way," said the executive, who declined to be named.

“And Amelia can do just that. We have had discussions," said the executive. “Softbank is again going to be at our office in February and I can tell you that we are closer than ever to see this result in a partnership."

Some experts said the likely partnership between IPsoft and SoftBank would underscore the technical prowess gained by IPsoft in building next-generation technology platforms.

Over the past 12 months, home-grown Indian firms have launched their own smart technology platforms in a battle for supremacy in offering solutions that automate many manual repetitive tasks and save them from deploying an army of engineers to do the same work.

IPsoft declined to comment on the potential partnership with SoftBank. An email sent to SoftBank on Monday went unanswered.

Mint has learnt that SoftBank’s executive vice-president Eric Gan has had multiple meetings with Dube and is expected to be at IPsoft’s office in New York early next year to see the three-dimensional facial recognition pattern of Amelia version 2.

Until now, virtual assistant Amelia has been used by companies including Accenture Plc. to do the work of call-centre employees and back-office accountants. But with Amelia version 2, the management at IPsoft said it had crossed a “milestone" where, thanks to the “episodic and semantic memory", the computing product works exactly the way a human brain works.

“Robots world over have a good degree of sophistication in mechanical functions, like in their ability to climb up stairs or run. But what they lack is a brain. And this is where Amelia 2 comes in because she does not merely (give) answers to a set of questions but can smile or frown depending on a conversation," Dube, founder and chief executive officer of IPsoft, said in a separate interview last week.

Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) unveiled Ignio in June, with Infosys Ltd selling its own Infosys Intelligent Platform and Wipro Ltd its artificial intelligence-powered platform Holmes, or “heuristics and ontology-based learning machines and experiential systems", as these firms aim to make their revenue growth non-linear, or delink productivity gains from workforce numbers.

These companies are still coy about disclosing the revenue generated from these platforms. TCS chief executive officer and managing director N. Chandrasekaran told Mint in October that it would take a “few years" before the company starts sharing details on its revenue from technology platform.

“By potentially expanding the use cases to physical robots, IPsoft would blur the lines between its core enterprise- focused business and more consumer-facing scenarios," said Thomas Reuner, managing director of IT outsourcing firm HfS Research.

SoftBank Robotics Corp. is Softbank’s robotics venture with ecommerce group Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Apple Inc.’s supplier Foxconn, and the firm has already sold 6,000 units of Pepper robots since starting their sales in June.

“IPsoft is probably ahead of the pack in terms of deploying systems that recognize an individual’s mood and emotion," said Dan Miller, a senior analyst at Opus Research, a San Francisco-based consulting firm that tracks the interactive-services sector. “In the social robot category, we think we are about to see some breakthroughs in both price and functionality. Pepper is trying to avoid falling into the trap of pricing and lack of specific tasks and with the potential incorporation of IPsoft’s Amelia 2.0 capabilities, it may be more human-like in its interactions. IPsoft characterizes this as Amelia ‘maturing’ and bringing richer mood and personality attributes. It will also use deeper semantic understanding to build a stronger bond with people."

Pepper retails at $1,600; in addition, a customer pays a monthly fee of $200 to use the robot. At the launch of Pepper in June, Son said SoftBank was preparing for a time when robots will be as popular as cars.

“I am convinced that sometime in the next five years, you’ll pass someone in the corridor and you will not be able to discern if it’s a human or an android," said Dube, a former New York University mathematics professor.

Reuner of HfS Research cautioned that though new markets are always tempting, IPsoft will need to make significant investments in marketing its latest product.

“It would require deep investments in messaging to differentiate and tailor the market messages. In the short term this appears more important than engaging in a more philosophical discussion as to whether this approach has the ability to pass the Turing test," said Reuner.

The test devised by British computer scientist Alan Turing is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence equivalent to that of a human.

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